Are You Sure You're French?


By Maurice Maschino

Le Monde Diplomatique
June 2002

When Le Pen was beaten in the second round of the French presidential elections, the country thought it had proved it was not racist. But immigration officials still hanker for 'racial purity'. Anyone with a complex ancestry who applies to renew an ID card encounters obstacles.

Jacques R was annoyed back in 1995 when he left his identity card in a jacket that he had sent to the cleaners, but he wasn't worried; he thought that he could pick up a duplicate card from police headquarters(1). To his surprise, the clerks asked him to prove that he was French, so the next day he returned with a pile of papers, and was even more surprised when they were immediately confiscated. He lost his temper, asked whether they thought he was a forger and told them again that he needed his ID card urgently. They assured him he would get it soon.

Three months later, on Christmas Eve, he got a summons from the state prosecutor, which explained that in 1953 his father had been awarded French citizenship by mistake (Jacques had been born in 1954). As his father now counted as a foreigner and as Jacques had not applied for French nationality before the age of 18, he was not French, either, and proceedings were under way to confirm this. The court later ratified the prosecutor's decision. Jacques was not French.

He could not understand. He had always lived in France, he had studied there, had done his military service, married a Frenchwoman, and ran a shop. He had never been in trouble with the police, and had already renewed his ID card successfully. Fortunately he was able to prove that he had lived in France for more than 10 years, and that the authorities had always considered him to be French, so he was entitled to right of abode at least. Two years later, the court accepted his plea and, at the age of 43, he at last became French. But his children, with their "foreign" father, lost their French nationality and the family had to initiate legal proceedings to establish that the children too were entitled to right of abode.

Even French citizens whose parents' nationality is beyond dispute may suffer from outrageous demands. Franí§oise B, a former school headmistress, was 65 when she applied for a new ID card. She had been born in Algeria when it was part of France. Her father had been a civil servant, born in mainland France and then seconded to local government overseas. Her application prompted demands that she prove her French nationality. She asked how could she not be French, given that for more than 40 years she had been a civil servant (2) working for the French education system? That made no difference, she was told, as her place of birth suggested that she might be foreign.

Lucienne G, aged 50 and born in Strasbourg, had lived in Paris for years and had renewed her ID card several times. The authorities suddenly discovered that her great-grandparents were in fact German — born in Alsace after the Franco-Prussian war, when the area was occupied. She succeeded in proving that she was entitled to right of abode in France only after several years of legal wrangling.

If you trace all French people back to their great-grandparents you will find that more than one third of the present population of the country has foreign origins. Anyone not born in France of French parents and with French grandparents may at any time be required to prove his or her nationality. They may even discover they are not French. "We are all provisionally French," says Gérard Tcholakian, a barrister, "since at any point in our lives, the authorities may dispute our nationality." Laurence Roques, another barrister, explains: "If there is an element of foreignness in our family history, we are suspect, and doomed to a Kafkaesque paper chase."

Michí¨le C, a company director in southwest France, is French, but was born in Tunis. Her mother was French, but she too was born in Tunis. Her mother's father was also French on his father's side, but was born in Corsica. This combination was too much for the authorities, and they demanded a complete set of birth certificates for all Michí¨le's family. The records office in Corsica responded within two months. But the centre in Nantes, which keeps a record of all French people born overseas, could find no trace of Michí¨le's mother. A year later the document finally turned up. Meanwhile her great-grandfather's certificate had expired. She had to make a new application. So Michí¨le waited three years to obtain new papers. This made her professional life difficult as she could not travel or prove her identity.

Blind spots in the law

No one can be sure of avoiding this treatment. "I have represented three generals, professional soldiers born abroad where their fathers were serving," says the barrister Alain Mikowski. In 1993 soldiers of African or North African origin who had served in the French army lost the nationality they had been awarded 20 or 30 years earlier. They now receive a much smaller pension, on a par with foreign mercenaries.

Yet there is nothing in the law on nationality, added to the French civil code in 1993, to justify the authorities' behaviour. Despite many minor changes over the last century, no one has ever challenged the basic principles upheld by the law — the right to the nationality of parents and birthplace. A person is French if one of his or her parents is French. Children born in France of foreign parents qualify for French nationality at the age of 18. People may become French by declaration, naturalisation or reintegration.

The French law on nationality is more open than its equivalent in other countries but, according to Jean-Michel Bélorgey, a privy counsellor, has blind spots: "It makes little allowance for situations that defy legal definition. Legislators are constantly rewriting the law. To avoid upsetting a minority of civil rights activists or the silent, and often xenophobic, majority, they invent texts with loopholes, leaving the executive latitude. This explains the confusion when people apply for new papers. The people at the top never check what happens at a local level."

Sometimes the ministry issues internal memos contrary to the spirit or the letter of the law. It depends on the historical and political context. For years legislators have been terrified of France being submerged by third-world immigrants. They are convinced that the country is surrounded by enemies. French citizens must prove their identity: a hidden foreigner may lurk inside any French national.

In 1985 the novelist Jacques Laurent described in Le Monde the problems he had had renewing his ID card (3). "It caused an uproar, because he was well known," said a civil servant, "but it had been going on for ages. At the time there were thousands of people in the same position." Since 1995, and the introduction of new secure identity cards, there have been hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, in the same position. "The prevailing attitude is much the same as 30 years ago," adds the civil servant. "Detecting 1% of mistakes or forgeries means misery for the other 99%. It's ridiculous, but nobody mentions it. The socialist government made no difference. In fact, it was worse. The Ministry of Justice paid even less attention to rulings by the Supreme Court of Appeal than it did before. If the court ruled that the ministry was mistaken, it would set up an expert committee to find a way round the ruling."

The circular (4) issued by the Minister of the Interior in 1993 is still in force. Michel Tubiana, a barrister and president of France's Human Rights League, thinks that it is illegal. A new administrative procedure is being used as an excuse to doubt nationality, which was not intended by the original law. Anybody applying for new papers may be suspected of being a foreigner, with counterfeit documents, or an illegal immigrant. They must prove their nationality, as if their old ID card were a forgery. Tubiana explains: "Introducing the secure ID card was a political decision. The authorities ask applicants to produce certificates of nationality, although the computer records show that the same people have already renewed their papers several times. This is xenophobia, reflecting an exclusive conception of nationality."

People may be French because they were born here, but it is better if their parents are French. "In that case there can be no doubt," says Roques. The problem is that once the authorities start asking people about their origins, enquiries become racist (as in Le Pen's political agenda). "We are seeing behaviour that aims to 'purify the white race'," says Tcholakian. "Some administrative bodies handling disputes are consciously or unconsciously determined to protect racial purity. I have had to serve as many as 10 writs to establish the nationality of a young African whose father was incontrovertibly French. But the court refused to issue a certificate of nationality."

"They are exaggerating the importance of origins," says Bélorgey, "as if there were some essential Frenchness that must be protected." This explains the suspicion of anyone born abroad or of foreign parents, the fear that the race might be contaminated, and the demands for documents attesting to "purity".

So when French people, born in France and elsewhere, apply for an ID card (or a passport if they do not already have a secure ID card) they may be required to produce a certificate of nationality. Most are unaware of this and do not even know that such a certificate exists. No one has informed them. Some police stations have posted relevant notices, but they are often illegible and they are always incomprehensible. The Ministry of Justice and local police authorities have published brochures, but very few people have seen them.

Therefore many people cannot understand what increasingly irritable clerks are talking about, and when it dawns on them that their nationality is in doubt, they lose their temper or panic. "People from all kinds of backgrounds come into my offices," says Mikowski. "They have been asked to produce an unbelievable range of documents and been told they are not French. Or that they have to prove they are."

'Each time it's a shock'

"Each time it comes as a shock," says a senior police officer in Paris. "People simply do not understand. They're used to papers being issued on the spot and instead they have to go to court. They're surrounded by a crowd, fed up with waiting, noise, and other furious applicants. When parents want to add the names of their children to their passport, we have to explain that a birth certificate is not enough, they must bring the children along too. They take us for bureaucrats, but we work in conditions that would make a monster of the nicest person."

Civil servants, applying orders from on high, then refer many applications to the courts. "For the last three years we have been asked to stick closely to the rules," says a supervisor. On arriving at court, applicants have to make an appointment to get the list of official documents required for the issue of a certificate of nationality. The list is long. But as it says at the top, it is only "a provisional list, to which other items may be added following an initial review of the application." So applicants must submit their own birth certificate and one for each of their forebears going back three generations.

They must also find the livret de famille (5), for themselves, their parents, in-laws and grandparents, the corresponding marriage certificates, and their own personal record of military service and work testimonials. "At one point," says Tchokalian, "the court in Toulon demanded around 30 documents to issue a certificate of nationality."

Once applicants have gathered all these papers they must make an appointment with the clerk of the court's office to register their file. There is no waiting room, just a few chairs, which means that people have to stand for two or three hours. Nor is there any privacy. The clerk deals with applicants one after another, leafing through papers, asking questions that everyone else can hear.

Clearly this is legal violation of privacy. In a court in the Paris suburbs we heard an old man explain that his grandfather had died at Dachau and his papers had been destroyed in the Warsaw ghetto. Another man told how his parents-in-law, who lived in an isolated village in Mali, could not travel 300 miles to Bamako to photocopy family records. The clerk did not know what to say to either of them. Many clerks have learnt the procedures on the job and lack the necessary skills. They confuse Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, and former Belgian and French colonies in the Congo.

The baffled clerk in this court phoned his supervisor, who was away for the day, then the public records office in Nantes, which did not answer. Finally, he took the applications, saying: "We'll see."

Some applicants have to wait up to six months for just a receipt. Meanwhile the senior clerk checks documents and, perhaps, issues a certificate of nationality. According to current regulations if there is any doubt the court's office refers the case to the Ministry of Justice. There, a dozen, equally unenthusiastic, civil servants ask the French consulate in the relevant country to check birth certificates. Some consulates do not respond at all, others take a few months, or a year, or two. There is no legal time limit for issuing administrative documents. Some people wait years. As French civil servants are not required to give their name — unlike their counterparts in the United Kingdom — people have no way of knowing who is dealing with their case.

If the authorities refuse to issue a certificate of nationality, applicants can appeal to the tribunal d'instance (court of first instance). If that court also confirms the Ministry's decision, an appeal may be made to the tribunal de grande instance (a higher jurisdiction).

But, as Mikowski explains: "The whole French system is based on suspicion, with very little latitude in the interpretation of the law." Cases may take years to be settled.

Tubiana says: "I have had really violent exchanges with cynical or obstinate prosecutors. For two identical cases (two brothers to whom the Ministry was refusing French nationality), the same court made two contradictory rulings, two months apart. I had to go to the court of appeal." Mikowski adds: "We lose 90% of our cases. In Pontoise [just outside Paris] the prosecutor does not bother to attend. It is the same in Evry. When the court rules in our favour, the prosecutor's office appeals."

There are always contradictions between personal history and collective rules. But state demands for conformity are increasingly severe. This is turning the French nation into something sacred at a time when states are giving up part of their power to supranational bodies. It is defending a narrow definition of national identity, whereas people now claim dual or even multiple identities. It is taking a one-dimensional view of people, whereas they define their own identity in terms of region, religious allegiance, and political and professional commitment to larger European entities. The French state sees people as exclusively French, or not, and defines that Frenchness in the narrowest and most arbitrary manner. The French are happy to claim Breton or Corsican origins, as well as personal influences from Yugoslavia, Algeria, Portugal or Mali.

French authorities are offhand and introverted. They would do well to remember the revolutionaries of 1789, who far from adopting an exclusive attitude about Frenchness, sought to integrate anyone who was attached to the country and its ideals.

Article 4 of the 1793 Constitution states: "The following are admitted to exercise the rights of French citizenship: every man born and domiciled in France, fully 21 years of age; every foreigner, fully 21 years of age, who, domiciled in France for one year, lives there by his labour, or acquires property, or marries a French woman, or adopts a child, or supports an elderly person; finally, every foreigner who is considered by the legislative body to be deserving of being treated humanely."

(1) Depending on the size of towns, applications for identity cards and passports by French nationals are handled at the town hall or Préfecture (police headquarters).

(2) Only French nationals may become civil servants.

(3) "Jacques Laurent est-il franí§ais?", Le Monde, Paris, 11 July 1985.

(4) This directive stipulated that applications for renewal of identity cards, replaced by secure, plastic-coated cards, should be treated as first-time applications. Applicants must prove they were French citizens.

(5) An official document recording births and deaths in each family.

Translated by Harry Forster

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